March 4, 2024

Remembering MKO Abiola’s transformer semiotics 

David Hundeyin

MKO Abiola


ONE of the captivating political campaign lines of MKO Abiola has been immortalised in a seminal work by Professor Tunde Ope-Davies (Tunde Opeibi) of the University of Lagos. Titled Discourse, Politics and the 1993 Presidential Election Campaign in Nigeria, the book documents the drive of the gladiators to secure the mandate of the electorate. Ope-Davies’ uncanny nose for hidden details smokes out Abiola’s rush for virtually every trick in the advertising books to outwit his main challenger, Bashir Tofa, of the National Republican Convention, NRC, leading Abiola to create the famous punchline on the transformer as a metaphor for abiding leadership. MKO, as he was fondly called, was of the Social Democratic Party, SDP. He was quoted by Ope-Davies (then known as Tunde Opeibi) as saying during his search for votes that all Nigeria needed to overcome its age-old statehood concerns was ‘one transformer’, one singular and enduring personality in the saddle whose beam of integrity would permeate all of society for salutary ripples in his days and beyond.

So, Abiola had an ad with the kicker: ‘Endless Power Interruptions’, followed by the rider: ‘All Nigeria needs is one transformer!’ In between, you have the semiotic message of a lit lantern in the midst of darkness ‘’depicting poor power supply or the failure of … government to guarantee steady and regular power…to Nigerian homes’’.

Ope-Davies recalls how the subject of failed and flawed leadership is then broached in the body copy: ‘’This country has the resources to ensure stable power supply. All it takes is one achiever who can transform what seems impossible to be possible. M.K.O Abiola has the courage and honesty of purpose to unite us in a bold move to solve our problems… All Nigeria needs is one transformer… A transformer is the equipment that generates electricity in every neighbourhood. Without a transformer, there cannot be power supply. Often, officials of the company responsible for power supply blame lack of good or ageing transformer for their inability to ensure good and steady power. While suggesting that he would address the problem by providing the leadership that would ensure regular energy supply, he presents himself as the one transformer who would ‘transform’ the society. One could see the creativity in the use of social amenities to promote political candidate’s campaign messages. Instead of making promises in plain language, he appeals to the visual senses of the people.’’

This book on the June 12 1993 poll was written in 2009 to chronicle the trajectory of a politician’s victory through ‘’effective campaign strategies’’. It salutes the people’s overwhelming trust in Abiola as their freely chosen leader.  But alas, Abiola’s triumph was aborted by the conspiracy and infighting among the military authorities and their civilian co-travellers. He wasn’t allowed to transform into the transformer he promised us. We’ve had to continuously mourn a doleful political leadership underhandedness that has followed Abiola’s loss. Instead of a ‘transformer’, we’ve have had pall-bearers giving us abyss, darkness. Each departing gloom always gave birth to a blacker dimness, until finally, in Muhammadu Buhari, we were hit with a somnolent blindness that sent all the nation of 200 million- plus to sleep for eight years. He reminded us of Rip Van Winkle, the character in Irving Washington’s short story who slept for 20 years and missed the American Revolution in 1776.

Still, sitting at Abiola’s feet wasn’t a wasted time. We received the lesson of all time: a nation that slips at the leadership level is bound to trip and fall. You must get it right at the point where you’re choosing who to lead you. He’s the transformer who gives you and the entire society the light that leads you away from the pit of perdition.

You don’t have him or her, you don’t have light. You may have all the resources of this world as our beloved Nigeria has; they would all come to zero if there’s no hero of a ‘transformer’ to show the way to exploit these assets for mass benefit. But if you have ‘zero’ or limited resources, a hardworking, innovative and selfless leader would bond with his or her people to readily create a mass of wealth surpassing the so-termed riches or minerals of an endowed nation bereft of a good leader, a transformer. It was the point Nigeria’s late novelist, Chinua Achebe, made in the book he published in 1983, The Trouble with Nigeria.

We must begin to work harder at choosing our leaders, whether at the centre or at the wings, outposts or grassroots, seeing that’s the make-or-mar stage of the process of efficiently administering a society, its people and resources. That’s what also decides if that society would be a success or failure, if it would march into a prosperous and stable future or if it would just be taking unsteady baby steps with fears that it would be a matter of a few years for the legs to collapse and prevent further movement altogether.

More than 60 years after so-called Independence, Nigeria is still shady about its status: to stay together or break up, to shred its constitution or retain it, to run a presidential or parliamentary system, to be under an arrangement in which the majority become poorer and destitute while a minuscule steal state wealth with impunity or work for a truly just order, to create more states or not, to bring back the regional system or let it remain in the past?  The weak and indifferent leaders we’ve had over the decades have been defeated by these demons, such that they’re recurring little devils that feature under every administration and in every age. Lay hold on the newspapers of the ’70s through the ’80s, ’90s and the current century and you’d find the imps everywhere. No strong leader has emerged to rock the boat and change the order. Warped religion, corruption cronyism (nepotism), ethnic considerations, compromised (stained) leadership, etc., combine to block such attempts.  

We need leaders with character that emerge from a crucible of fire. They should pass the unbending integrity test. In their 2011 book, Segun Osoba, The Newspaper Years, Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe, relate how the late Babatunde Jose, a giant of Nigeria’s newspaper journalism, recruited his reporters who went on, not only to become the greatest in the industry, but also outside their discipline. Jose was unsparing and disruptive in his search for those who would mold the society through their reports. 

At an interview session, Jose wanted to know what a young potential reporter would do if, while he was making love with his wife, he heard a bang outside followed by a scream. One fellow said he’d disengage and shower before going to cover the event. Another said: ‘’I won’t shower. I would just put on my pants and trousers and go.’’ That’s the answer that made Jose’s day: Forsaking personal pleasure to serve the public. The book also records the case of the one who has an urgent journalistic assignment. But then here comes his pregnant wife; she is groaning, needing to be taken to the hospital. What’s the poor journalist going to do? Our fellow says he’d take his woman to the health facility and leave for the assignment after his wife delivers. He missed it, according to Jose.